HOUSTON - One day while he walked the streets of Houston, a homeless guy named Timothy Roberts said he noticed a couple of discarded bags from McDonald’s sitting in a trash can.
“I was hungry and I needed something to eat,” he remembered. “I didn’t have any choice.”
So he dug into the garbage and foraged for food. That’s when a police officer confronted him and wrote him a ticket, he said. Roberts said he lost the ticket and didn’t think much about it until much later, when he had a run-in with some other officers.
“They said I had a warrant because I didn’t show up for court,” he said. “I got two days in jail for it, for dumpster diving.”
Now, if Mayor Annise Parker has her way, Houston’s law against digging in trash bins is about to change.
However, exactly how it might change was in flux Monday, as the Parker administration backtracked from what would have been a sweeping repeal of a city ordinance that outlaws rummaging through garbage.
The idea cropped up after a homeless man named James Kelly, who identifies himself as a veteran, was ticketed for digging through a trash bin on public property in downtown Houston.
The story ricocheted around the world and generated renewed opposition from critics who claim the Parker administration is insensitive to the homeless.
The mayor said she was surprised to hear the city had an ordinance forbidding people from digging through trash cans.
“And I had to say, really?” Parker said. “There’s an ordinance about that? Give me a break.”
So her administration placed on the city council agenda a proposal to simply repeal the ordinance, which would have legalized digging through trash receptacles throughout the city.
However, over the weekend, the mayor’s staff said she decided the ordinance should continue to outlaw rummaging through recycling bins. After all, the city makes money off recyclables.
Then on Monday morning, after KHOU 11 News asked whether the proposal would basically legalize digging through trash placed outside people’s homes, Parker said she would consider that exception, too.
Within a short time, the mayor’s staff said she merely wanted to legalize digging through public trash receptacles on public property.
The civil rights lawyer representing Kelly, the ticketed homeless veteran, praised the mayor’s decision to decriminalize digging in trash bins.
“To stop someone from checking in the garbage for maybe a piece of food or something they can get a nickel for, that’s just cruel,” said attorney Randall Kallinen.
Also lauding the decision was Timothy Roberts, the homeless man who said he spent two days in jail after failing to appear in court on a ticket.
“I say thank God Bless America,” he said. “About time.”
The proposal is scheduled for a city council vote on Wednesday, but a spokesperson for the mayor indicates it may be either amended or delayed.